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Evaluation of “An Earnest Ministry” by John Angell James - by C. Matthew McMahon

Every Minister Ought to Understand What it Means to be Earnest in Pastoral Ministry

John Angell James (1785-1859) was born at Blandford Forum. After his conversion he decided to become a congregational preacher in 1802 and went to David Bogue’s training institution at Gosport in Hampshire. A year and a half later, on a visit to Birmingham, his preaching was so highly esteemed by the congregation of Carrs Lane Independent chapel that they invited him to exercise his ministry among them. He settled there in 1805, and was ordained in May 1806. He became suddenly popular in 1814, and began to attract large crowds. At the same time his religious writings, the best known of which are The Anxious Inquirer and this work, An Earnest Ministry.

This work is pointed at applying the notion of “earnestness” to every facet of the office of pastor. If one is going to be successful at ministry, he must be filled with godly zeal, or earnestness, without which, he will fail. This is basically a summary of the work. It is divided into 11 chapters, and runs 295 pages. He uses a number of long illustrations that often overpower the chapter, many of which, though, are quite helpful. My intention here is simply to draw out some of the best portions of the work.



Has the modern evangelical pulpit lost, and is it still losing, any of its power? If one is rightly evaluating the current American pulpit, the answer is an undeniable “yes.” Imagine dealing with this question almost 150 years ago? The true intent of the inquiry of this book then is this: Has the modern pulpit lost any of its efficacy as regards the great end for which the Gospel is preached, that is, the conversion of sinners, and the spiritual advancement of believers?[1] If we go back to the time of Baxter, Howe, Owen, Bates, Manton, and Charnock, there can be little reason to believe that the moderns preach with the same results that these men did.[2] It cannot be disputed that revivals are rare, and conversions few.[3] There is another consideration which may account for the diminished effect of the pulpit, and that is an increased power of the press and of the school. At one time the preacher had the public mind almost to himself. There were indeed Bibles, and schools, and tracts, but how few and uninfluential, compared with what they are in the present day![4]

Chapter 1: The Apostolic Ministry

“Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God,” (2 Cor. 5:20). In this truly wonderful passage, viewed in connection with its context, are set before us with beautiful simplicity, yet with surpassing grandeur, the theme, the design, and the method of the Christian ministry. James says, “the design of the ministry, which is strictly in harmony with its theme, is to bring sinful men into actual reconciliation with God on the ground of that system of mediation through Christ, which God himself has devised and proclaimed.”[5] The Christian ministry is an embassy from God, sending men to do what God ordained them to accomplish in his name.[6] Only by God’s grace and through godly earnestness will the minister be successful.[7] But still there is something else needed in addition to natural talent, to academic training, and even to the most fervent, evangelical piety, and that is, intense devotedness.[8]

Chapter 2: The Nature of Earnestness

What is meant by an earnest ministry? It implies, first, an object of special pursuit, and a vivid perception of its value and importance.[9] The man who has entered the sacred office merely to luxuriate in the haunts of the muses, has mistaken his errand to the pulpit, and is no less guilty, though somewhat less sordid, than he that says, “Put me in the priest’s office that I may eat a morsel of bread.”[10]

The design of the pulpit is in harmony with that of the cross; and the preacher is to carry out the design of the Savior in coming to seek and to save that which was lost. Preaching and teaching are the very agency which Jesus Christ employs to save those souls for which he died upon Calvary. If souls are not saved, whatever other designs are accomplished, the great purpose of the ministry is defeated. The nature of real earnestness in a minister is a distinct, explicit, practical recognition of his duty to labor for the salvation of souls as the end of his office. Such a man has settled with himself that this is his vocation and his business.[11] It is the duty of the minister to lead his people “on unto perfection.”[12] In this he must be earnest, or that the subject has not only been selected, but that it has taken full possession of the mind, and has kindled towards it an intense desire of the heart.[13] James says, “To be useful in converting souls is his constant and practical aim: with a view to which, his texts are chosen, his sermons are composed and delivered, and his language, figures, and illustrations are selected.”[14] Such is the studious invention and diligent use of all appropriate means to accomplish the selected object.[15] His inquiry will often be, What next? What more? What better? And as the result of all this, new experiments will be tried, new plans will be laid, and new courses will be pursued. With an inextinguishable ardor, and with a resolute fixedness of purpose, he exclaims “I must succeed — How?[16]

Earnestness implies a purpose and power of subordinating everything it meets with, selects, or engages in, to the accomplishment of its one great object.[17] He must, then, be a learned man.[18] “If God hath no need of our learning, he can have still less of your ignorance.”[19] This means the minister must have a knowledge of what it means to draw close to Christ, and must have exemplified this in his own personal piety first. We are weak in the pulpit, because we are weak in the closet.[20] We are feeble as preachers, because we are feeble as Christians.[21] James says, “Multitudes are substituting zeal for piety, liberality for mortification, and a social for a personal religion.”[22] The degradation of personal piety and religious exercise in the church begins in the pulpit.

Chapter 3: The Nature of Earnestness Continued

James says, “Earnestness will manifest itself by energetic and untiring action in the use of those means by which its object is accomplished.”[23] There are two means, then, that earnestness accomplishes it end with the minister, in preaching and in pastoral work.[24] What is the end of the minister’s office? Aside from the glorification of God, it is the reconciliation of sinners to God and their complete salvation.[25] This means, in his earnest preaching, he cannot be intellectually cold, but a right balance of desire, temper and careful preparation must first be thought about.[26] This means that each sermon must contain as much of the gospel as would make every hearer of it acquainted with the way of salvation, though he never should listen to another discourse.[27] To know what themes contain the greatest potency over the public mind, and which should form the subject of an earnest ministry.[28]

Chapter 4: Earnestness in the Manner of Preaching

Style must of course to a considerable extent vary with the subject matter, and be regulated by it. In exegetical preaching, or in that part of a sermon which is merely expository, all that is required, and what is required, is a calm perspicuity, a flow of clear, limpid, quiet thought, which shall instruct the understanding, and gently draw after it the heart, without being expected to move, in any great degree, the passions.[29] We must not only direct the hearer in the sermon but impel them by it.[30] We should entreat, expostulate and beseech them in every sermon.[31] Simplicity of style, then, as opposed to the artificial and rhetorical, is essential to earnestness.[32]

Hear Thomas Doolittle, “The eyeing of eternity should make us ministers painful and diligent in our studies to prepare a message of such weight as we come about, when preaching to men concerning everlasting matters, and should especially move us to he plain in our speech, that even the capacity of the weakest in the congregation, that hath an eternal soul, that must be damned, or saved, might understand in things necessary to salvation, what we mean, and aim, and drive at.”[33] Now this is earnestness in preaching; when a man is seen to feel the truths he discusses; when it is evident to all that he believes what he says, in affirming that his hearers are sinking into perdition, and that he is laboring to persuade them to forsake their evil courses; when his sermons are full of close, pointed, personal addresses; when, in short, through the whole discourse, the preacher is seen moving onward from the understanding to a closer and closer approximation to the heart in the conclusion, and the hearer feels at length the hand of the preacher seizing it with a mysterious and resistless power.[34]

Chapter 5: Illustrations of Earnestness Collected from Various Authors

Here, James gives examples of preaching from Thomas Doolittle, Richard Baxter, John Howe, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Mr. Parsons. I’m not going to quote them at length, for they comprised most of the chapter.

Importantly, in considering those quotes, James says that in all preaching there should be exegesis, exposition, expostulation and application.[35] The hearer must be made to feel that they are not merely listening to the discussion of s subject, but to an appeal to themselves.[36]

Chapter 6: Earnestness of Manner Continued

By the delivery of sermons is meant voice and gesture, or what Demosthenes called action; who, on being asked what was the first excellence of an orator, replied, “Action:” what the second, “Action:” what the third, “Action.” This is an impressive admonition from such an authority, to all preachers, on the importance of that part of our subject.[37] Manner is, so to speak, the harbinger and herald of matter, summoning the faculties of the soul to give audience to the truth to be communicated, and holding the mind in a state of abstraction from all other subjects that would divert the thoughts and prevent impression.[38] It is not that the preacher speaks, but that he is always earnest in his speaking.[39] How does he learn this? James says, “A complete system of ministerial education must of necessity include some attention to elocution, and which should commence as soon as a student enters college : so that by the time he is put upon the preaching list he may have some aptitude for the management of his voice, and not have Ins thoughts diverted then from his matter and his object to his manner.”[40] There are some men who are good talkers out of the pulpit, yet bad speakers in it.[41] It is difficult for a congregation to believe a dull preacher.[42] His passionless monotony and poor speaking is a mental opiate for his hearers.[43] By an earnest manner, then, is meant, the enunciation that is dictated by a deep and feeling sense of the importance of our message. We are to persuade, to entreat, to beseech, and these modes of speech have an utterance of their own.[44] James says, “If we are not intensely real, we shall be but indifferent preachers.”[45]

With preaching, we must consider the matter and manner of prayer. Between these two there is a close and obvious connection, for earnest sermons should be ever associated with earnest prayers; and it cannot be doubted that a pious, faithful, and devoted minister, is scarcely less useful, at least in the way of keeping up the spirit of devotion in his congregation, by the latter, than he is by the former.[46] The hearers must feel that the presence of God has come down among them in power and glory during the prayer. How often have you felt this way in a service lead by a minister?[47] Everything connected with public worship should be still, orderly, solemn; as befits a service conducted in the presence of God, and with reference to him.[48] The most serious, reverent, and devotional manner is required, not only on our own account, but on account of the hearers.[49]

Chapter 7: Earnestness Manifested in the Pastorate

This must by no means be omitted. The pulpit is the chief, but not the only sphere of ministerial solicitude and action: just as preaching is God’s first, but not his exclusive means of saving souls.[50] Ministers cannot think they have done everything in their office once they have preached in the pulpit, when they have neglected the duties of the pastorate.[51] The minister should have oversight of the flock in its various stages and various areas. Sunday school, bible classes, catechism classes, pastoral visitation,[52] etc., are part of the minister’s regular duty. Here, the pastor is even to bring up the parents in his church to a right sense and discharge of their functions in training their children.[53] The minister is the teacher, superintendent, and the party responsible for religious knowledge in all spheres.[54]

Chapter 8: Examples of Earnestness in the Ministry

The power of example is proverbial.[55] Christ is to be the pattern for all, but especially of ministers. James says, “Here, ministers of the gospel, here is your pattern. This earnestness is your model. You are to be something like this. The work of Christ in saving souls is to be regarded in a double aspect by you, both as the means of your personal salvation, and the example for your official character. We have too much forgotten the latter. Even though as Christians we may have looked to his conduct as our exemplar, we have too much neglected to do so as ministers. As servants, we have not kept our eyes fixed as we ought to have done upon the Great Master. Shame upon us, how little careful we have been to catch the fire of intense and ardent devotedness from this glowing and divine example.”[56] Consider Oliver Heywood in his example. It appears from his diary that in one year, beside his stated work on the Lord’s Day, he preached one hundred and fifty times; kept fifty days of fasting and prayer, and nine of thanksgiving; and travelled fourteen hundred miles in the service of Christ and immortal souls. And when we consider that these journeys must have been either on foot or on horseback, this distance was more than ten thousand miles by modern means.[57]

Chapter 9: Motives to Earnestness

Earnestness is demanded of the Christian minister by his theme and his object.[58] It is for the subject of eternal, immutable truth delivered to us by the omnipotent sovereign God of the universe.[59] Ministers don’t simply gratify curiosity, not merely to conduct the mind seeking for knowledge, to the fountains where it may slake its thirst; no, but to save the immortal soul from sin, and death, and hell, and conduct it to the abodes of a glorious immortality.[60] James says, “A want of earnestness in the execution of that commission which is designed to save immortal souls from eternal ruin, and raise them to everlasting life, is a spectacle which, if it were not so common, would fill us with amazement, indignation, and contempt.”[61] With this in mind, what kind of ministry do you want as a minister? Is it in line with what God desires?[62] This state of mind and action is within the bounds and reach[63] of every minister if they are earnest to go and get it. The state of the church today demands that all ministers consider the weightiness of the subject matter.[64] Satan is ruining the souls of men faster than ministers collectively today can save them.[65]

Chapter 10: The Means of Obtaining and Earnest Ministry

It does not matter what we desire if we cannot obtain it. It must be “gotten.” It starts with a love for the truth and a love for the ministry in the manner and function set up by God.[66]  Our congregations must see the vast importance of this kind of ministry,[67] which means it must be loved and desired by the preacher first. There should be a great amount of prayer given to God to supply the church with this kind of earnest ministry.[68]

Chapter 11: The Necessity of Divine Influence to Make the Ministry Effective

How could we employ an earnest ministry without the power of the Holy Spirit?[69] It is only by the power of God’s grace that a revival of earnestness in the ministry will take place. Ministers now are working under the privilege of the Messiah who came in the fullness of power, and has delivered his Spirit from the throne of grace to his ministers for their good and work.[70] The minister must take up his position in the fire of this Spirit, deriving from it unspeakable advantage in addressing our hearers; a seriousness, tenderness, and majesty would pervade our discourses, beyond what the greatest unassisted talent could command; something superhuman would rest on us, a Divine glory would irradiate us, and we should speak in power and demonstration of the Spirit. Hall says, “Possessed of this celestial unction, we should be under no temptation to neglect a plain gospel, in quest of amusing speculations and unprofitable novelties; the most ordinary topics would open themselves with a freshness and interest, as though we had never considered them before; and the things of the Spirit would display their inexhaustible variety and depth. We shall pierce the invisible world, we shall look, so to speak, into eternity, and present the very essence of religion, while too many preachers, for want of spiritual discernment, rest satisfied with the surface and the shell. We shall not allow ourselves to throw one grain of incense on the altar of vanity, and shall forget ourselves so completely as to convince our hearers we do so; and, displacing everything else from the attention, leave nothing to be felt or thought of but the majesty of truth and the realities of eternity.”[71]

[1] James, John Angell, An Earnest Ministry, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), xi.

[2] Page xii.

[3] Page xiii.

[4] Page xiv. Imagine this today in our own day where we have TV, radio and the media to contend with, much less video games and movies.

[5] Page 21.

[6] Page 24.

[7] Page 27.

[8] Page 28.

[9] Page 31.

[10] Page 33.

[11] Page 35.

[12] Page 40.

[13] Page 41.

[14] Page 43.

[15] Page 45.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Page 49.

[18] Page 50.

[19] Page 51.

[20] Page 57.

[21] Page 58.

[22] Page 58.

[23] Page 66.

[24] Page 67.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Page 74.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Page 76.

[29] Page 86.

[30] Page 87.

[31] Page 88.

[32] Page 90.

[33] Page 95.

[34] Page 97.

[35] Page 115.

[36] Page 117.

[37] Page 120.

[38] Page 121.

[39] Page 122.

[40] Page 134.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Page 138.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Page 139.

[46] Page 142.

[47] Page 143.

[48] Page 145.

[49] Page 147.

[50] Page 149.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Page 154.

[53] Page 156.

[54] Page 160.

[55] Page 168.

[56] Page 170.

[57] Pages 173-174.

[58] Page 183.

[59] Page 183.

[60] Page 185.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Page 203.

[63] Page 220.

[64] Page 241.

[65] Page 242.

[66] Page 247.

[67] Page 252.

[68] Page 253. See Jeremiah 3:15. This means that we need more than bookworms for the ministry.

[69] Page 283.

[70] Page 287.

[71] Page 292. Hall, On the Discouragements and Support of the Christian Ministry.

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